The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel by Yoko Ogawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've been a fan of Yoko Ogawa's since some short stories I read in the New Yorker, and this is her first novel to be translated into English. Her prose is simple and elegant, and the story here reflects that. Actually, it's as unassuming as the title, and yet it is surprisingly deep and affecting.
The basic story is that the Housekeeper is a single mother who works as a maid to care for her ten-year-old boy. One day, she is assigned to a difficult case: a mathematics Professor with special needs. A car accident in 1975 left him with a short-term memory that resets every 80 minutes, so for him it is always the day before the accident. Yet, his mind is still sharp, and his stories and explanations about math reveal to the Housekeeper a whole new way of looking at the world. Numbers connect everything, and they explain everything. The way the math is presented in the story is easy to understand, even to a dunderhead like me. Ogawa makes sure the reason for any particular theorem is clear to the reader. Each idea is essential to the story.
When the Housekeeper first brings her son to the house, she discovers the Professor has an affection for children. The young man and the old man bond over baseball, and there is a particularly good chapter where they take the Professor to his first ever game, a uniquely problematic thing, he rarely leaves his house for a reason. Plus, they have to concoct explanations for why his favorite player won't be pitching that day, because they can't tell him he's retired.
The main throughline of the book is the connection between these people, of the family they form, and the transience of their bond forcing them to savor every moment. Ogawa avoids Western pitfalls--there is no romance, there isn't a cataclysmic accident that transforms them all suddenly--life just eventually takes its course. The difference for them is that they have now become constants, they are corresponding numbers. It's a shame Yasujiro Ozu is no longer alive, he could make a hell of a movie out of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
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